My Week With PT Anderson, Day Three: Magnolia

Jeff delves deep into the world of interconnected LA stories.

Magnolia (1999)

84%

When he pitched Boogie Nights to the studio, Paul Thomas Anderson famously demanded three hours and an NC-17 rating, and was told he had to pick one. He eventually missed both marks -- but with his next outing, 1999's Magnolia, he crossed the three-hour barrier in style, delivering a whopping 188-minute behemoth of a movie that unites a sprawling ensemble cast in pursuit of some equally outsized themes.

As with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, Anderson tips his hand early on with Magnolia, establishing the tone with a camera that's more restlessly omniscient than ever -- from the opening shots, you know you're in the presence of cinema. He spends the first 20 minutes of the movie introducing the viewer to characters who are in the midst of life-consuming struggles with fundamental things like death, violence, and love; clearly, you're in for some statements about Very Big Things.

Fortunately, Anderson assembled a stable of outstanding actors to help him get his points across. Aside from the usual suspects -- resurfacing P.T. vets included John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Philips Seymour Hoffman and Baker Hall, Melora Walters, William H. Macy, and Luis Guzmán -- he made the wise decision to cast Jason Robards in the key role of Earl Partridge, a dying TV producer whose ties to several cast members (most notably Frank T.J. Mackey, the self-styled love guru who provides many of Magnolia's more unpleasant moments) drive much of the film.

Always a reliable actor, Robards delivers one of his finest performances in Magnolia, which sounds kind of funny, given that he doesn't do much besides lie in a bed while the life drains out of his character. But that's why he's such an outstanding anchor for the movie -- he does everything with nothing here, stripping his craft down to the bare essentials of voice and eyes to play a man struggling to atone for his sins while he still has time. And he's perfectly matched with Hoffman, who -- given a rare opportunity to play a character in an Anderson movie who isn't heartbreakingly delusional or an abrasive weirdo -- lends an element of much-needed normalcy to a movie that takes place in a world largely populated by broken people.

Some of those people include Partridge's wife Linda (Moore), who harbors plenty of guilt of her own; Jimmy Gator (Hall), a legendary quiz show host who's trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Walters); Donnie Smith (Macy), a former contestant on Gator's show whose life has gone deeply awry; and Jim Kurring (Reilly), a good-hearted (albeit slightly incompetent and emotionally crippled) police officer. While not all of their stories initially seem to have much to do with one another, you know the drill -- by the time the end credits roll, you will have been given a dramatic case study in the ways in which Everything Is Connected.

Again, Anderson gives himself a lot of ground to cover here, and while he occasionally seems unable to resist making his points overly explicitly -- in fact, one entire scene, which rests on some awkward exchanges between Macy and Henry Gibson in a bar, feels like it was taken from a clumsier film -- for the most part, Magnolia finds Anderson making his points with about as much restraint as anyone could expect from a three-hour film. Are some lines thunderingly obvious? Do we have to hang on through some tonal skips (not to mention a mad bit of ACTING! from Tom Cruise in the final act)? Yes, absolutely, but the movie's flaws are kept to a fair minimum given the mad jumble of narrative.

Of course, we can't talk about Magnolia without discussing the spontaneous Aimee Mann singalong and the frogs. I won't delve too deeply into the particulars, so as not to spoil them for anyone who hasn't already seen the movie, but they were definitely part of what kept me away from it when it was in theaters. I mean, a movie this long represents a serious investment of the viewer's time, and if you've heard about these scenes outside the context of the rest of the film, it's easy to conclude that Anderson is disrespecting that investment by jerking his audience around with flights of fancy.

So... is he guilty of that here? After finally watching Magnolia, I'm inclined to cut Anderson some slack. The movie warns you from the get-go that the world is an inscrutable place, filled with mysteries that impart horror and awe in equal measure, and if that provides a convenient loophole for some of the weirder stuff he gets us into here, then so be it; anyway, I'd like to think what he's really trying to tell us is that life holds infinite potential for love in spite of our unworthiness -- that literally anything can happen at any moment.

That's kind of a gauzy, soft-focus interpretation for a movie where children are murdered, abused, humiliated, and possibly molested; where fathers' sins are visited repeatedly on their sons and daughters; where death can mean a final, awful confrontation with what Robards' character eloquently refers to as "the regret that we make." But as so often happens with Anderson, in the end, everything leads back to love -- where we find it, how we give it, how we move forward when it's denied, and the power recognizing it can give us.

Speaking of which: Tomorrow, we fall in Punch-Drunk Love. Until then...


See more:

Monday: Hard Eight

Tuesday: Boogie Nights

Wednesday: Magnolia

Thursday: Punch-Drunk Love

Friday: There Will Be Blood

Saturday: The Master

Comments

DBrock

David E-Brock

god this movie is amazing

Sep 19 - 04:58 PM

Bigbrother

Big Brother

Wow, interesting. That's the longest review of this movie with the least mention of Tom Cruise I've seen. Usually Cruises performance tends to dominate discussion of the film.

Sep 19 - 09:45 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Great write up! This is my favorite PTA so far, a mad cacophony of people struggling for the illusion of control in an unpredictable universe. I didn't have a problem with Tom Cruise's ACTING in the third act (it's not like he drop-kicked a dog or anything), and it helps if you're familiar with his true-life similar relationship with his own father. All of the performances are pretty magnificent. It's frequently compared, sometimes unflatteringly, with Robert Altman's "Short Cuts", but the comparison begins and ends with intertwined lives in Los Angeles. I'd argue that PTA has bigger game in mind, and accomplishes it with more virtuosity.

Sep 19 - 10:06 PM

Heath Cowart

Heath Cowart

My All-Time Favorite Movie.

Sep 20 - 01:31 AM

paperboy5456

Kiko Martinez

Mine, too!

Sep 20 - 08:04 AM

Jorge Sánchez

Jorge Sánchez

Same.

Sep 20 - 09:40 AM

P?teris Kri?j?nis

P?teris Kri?j?nis

One of movies which gives me thrills each time I see it. Cruise - why oh why you don't try to do something like this more offen. Screw sciontology, stick with this kind of acting! Rest of team just delivers blows.

It's sad. It's demanding. It doesn't give easy way out ("Use that regret" and "We can be trough with past..." speech is chilling explaining of harsh reality that you can't get away from your past, it will be always with you), but yes, in the end, it lays down simple and hopeful truth - if you search for love, and if you keep looking, and if you find it, just stick with it. Don't hide, don't run away. Because it's best thing you will have in this harsh, cruel, haotic world where everyone crashes into each other. Life inspiring.

Sep 20 - 06:02 AM

P?teris Kri?j?nis

P?teris Kri?j?nis

And btw, Cruise third act "acting" is one of resonating things in a movie - maybe because you aren't used to get such things from Tom. And maybe that's why it simply works.

Sep 20 - 06:04 AM

Shawn McDonald

Shawn McDonald

"it's easy to conclude that Anderson is disrespecting that investment by jerking his audience around with flights of fancy."

Uh, uh, 'Things a movie critic would say?'

Uhm, uh, 'Things that are pointedly true but ignored?'

Uhm, uh, OH! 'THINGS AN APOLOGIST SAYS ABOUT A PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON MOVIE!!!'

*DING! * DING!* DING!* DING *

...And we all dance beneath the big orange pyramid.

Magnolia made the short list of movies I've walked out on in a theater. The exploding frogs scene moved my PTA-meter from "meh" to "white hot hate."

Sep 20 - 07:41 AM

paperboy5456

Kiko Martinez

Mine, too!

Sep 20 - 08:04 AM

Jorge Sánchez

Jorge Sánchez

Same.

Sep 20 - 09:40 AM

Paul P.

Paul Paroczai

"it's easy to conclude that Anderson is disrespecting that investment by jerking his audience around with flights of fancy"

A statement like this belies nothing more than a blatant ignorance of the millions of symbolic resonances found throughout the film for the sequence involving the frogs. Notice for example the extreme prevalence of the number 82 throughout the film - in enormous white print on the red airplane that picks up unfortunate scuba-diver Delmar Darien, repeated numerous times on Marcy's name card when her mugshot is being taken, grafittid on the ledge from which Sidney Barringer attempts suicide. The prevalence of this number is undoubtedly ambiguous at first until we notice a strange sign in the audience of "What do Kids Know" that reads "Exodus 8:2" which of course is a reference to a passage in the bible. Turning to the actual passage we find "If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs". Here we have a direct and overt symbolic thread which constantly foreshadows the supernatural plague of the film's climax.

Of course, the question of "what does any of this have to do with the movie?" must be raised, but again attention to crucial plot elements and themes of the narrative reveal that there is nothing all that strange about this moment. One of the extremely prevalent themes of the film is the effect of parenthood, specifically patriarchy and its failure, upon offspring. We see Stanley oppressed and mistreated by his father, Frank Mackey still dealing with the emotional damage done to him by Earl Partridge who abandoned him and his ailing mother, Quiz Kid Donnie Smith still reeling from the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his parents, Jimmy Gator's daughter dealing with having been molested by her father, and countless other examples. In fact, as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith escapes to the bathroom of a bar to throw-up, he references Hamlet saying "it's the sins of the father imparted upon the son". The Book of Exodus in the bible is likewise a story of punishment wrought upon and escape from oppressive patriarchy. Anyone who knows the story of Moses knows that he was leading the people of God from the reign of the Pharaoh who only succumbed to his demands after the onset of a number of plagues, one involving a rain of frogs.

With these things in mind it's ridiculous and downright insulting to accuse Anderson of "disrespecting" the time investment made by the audience. In fact, remarks such as this and comments such as Shawn Mcdonald's above show inattentive viewers doing exactly the opposite. Faced with something they don't understand as a result of their failure to notice blatant symbolic and thematic symbols throughout the film, they accuse the director of some sort of malpractice. This is absolutely ridiculous.

It is true that Magnolia is a film that operates outside of the ordinary in many ways, and indeed it is difficult to believe Stanely's claim in the library that "these things do happen" or that, as the inscription on Claudia's painting says "but it did happen". Certainly to my objective knowledge frogs have never rained from the sky, but as the opening sequence and narration of the film blatantly states, what we are about to see is a story that attempts to make sense of the unbelievably strange things that happen in every day life - the unimaginable ways in which things can be connected and the often baffling causes of "coincidence". This is a narrative in which everyone touches one another in some way, in which a giant web of connections and relationships of varying strength are connected. There is no ambiguity that what we are watching is a constructed world. Anderson's flamboyant camera work and editing techniques are part of what make the film such a pleasure to watch, but they also make us aware of the fact that this is a manufactured reality. To take it as a strict documentary representation is foolish as are readings of it along these lines. He takes drastic measures to talk about things that do happen, connections and coincidences that connect us all according to what the narrator concludes cannot simply be chance. "Strange things happen all the time" Certainly frogs have not fallen from the sky in quite a while, but the extreme symbolism illustrates a point which is developed in countless obvious symbolic and thematic references throughout the film.

Sep 20 - 11:54 AM

Paul P.

Paul Paroczai

As to the Aimee Mann singalong I'd like to turn to another scene in the film to make a quick point. When the police officer played by John C. Reilly approaches Claudia's apartment on response to the noise complaint, we hear the very distinct music of Aimee Mann playing on the soundtrack. However, it is not until after the story has turned to watch the advance of numerous other narratives which feature a totally different soundtrack, that we return to the scene involving Claudia and the officer, at which point the Aimee Mann concludes. Brilliantly, the scenes involving Claudia's first encounter with the officer frame what is inserted between the scenes beginning and conclusion, but Anderson doesn't pause the scene, instead when we return to Claudia she has finished cleaning and runs to open the door as the song ends. This suggests that the events we watched in between the opening and conclusion of the scene have all been going on at the same time. The particular scene is bookended with an incredibly effective narrative technique which can be analyzed away in terms of the rest of the movie, but most importantly, the framing narrative serves to establish everything as connected. I'd like to posit that the later singalong in the film is a sort of removed time in which the connection of all the characters is further emphasized as each makes an important decision at this same moment or is on the threshold of the climactic moment of each of their narrative threads.

In any case, questions of "disrespecting the time investment" of the audience can be seen to be absolutely ridiculous if one were to simply pay attention to what the film basically screams at its audience through the symbolic and thematic motifs which almost assault viewers. All that such criticism indicates is an ignorant and inattentive viewer.

Sep 20 - 11:54 AM

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles

Now that you've gotten that out of your system, please allow me to direct you to the part where I wrote "IF YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT THESE SCENES OUTSIDE THE CONTEXT OF THE FILM, it's easy to conclude that Anderson is disrespecting that investment by jerking his audience around with flights of fancy."

Sep 20 - 04:24 PM

Brad H.

Brad Hadfield

LMAO

Sep 21 - 06:24 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

I'm not sure if Paul was responding to Jeff Giles' orginal article, or was making a comment on Shawn McDonald's use of the quote. I thought Paul made some good points, and illustrates the depth of the film's vision and inspiration.

Sep 21 - 06:39 AM

Brad H.

Brad Hadfield

Great soundtrack by Aimee Mann.

Sep 20 - 12:50 PM

Davíđ Alexander Corno

Davíđ Alexander Corno

Nobody's face breaks like Julianne Moore's. My favorite living actress, largely because of the Boogie Nights/Magnolia one-two punch.

Sep 20 - 03:29 PM

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles

Now that you've gotten that out of your system, please allow me to direct you to the part where I wrote "IF YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT THESE SCENES OUTSIDE THE CONTEXT OF THE FILM, it's easy to conclude that Anderson is disrespecting that investment by jerking his audience around with flights of fancy."

Sep 20 - 04:24 PM

Brad H.

Brad Hadfield

LMAO

Sep 21 - 06:24 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

I'm not sure if Paul was responding to Jeff Giles' orginal article, or was making a comment on Shawn McDonald's use of the quote. I thought Paul made some good points, and illustrates the depth of the film's vision and inspiration.

Sep 21 - 06:39 AM

julio  s.

julio suarez

I think most critics don't seem to get that the obvious lines are meant to convey how people actually talk. They work wonderfully in sync with the film which is about a train wreck that has multiple crashes, all of them different and in more ways than one.

Sep 20 - 06:38 PM

Brad H.

Brad Hadfield

LMAO

Sep 21 - 06:24 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

I'm not sure if Paul was responding to Jeff Giles' orginal article, or was making a comment on Shawn McDonald's use of the quote. I thought Paul made some good points, and illustrates the depth of the film's vision and inspiration.

Sep 21 - 06:39 AM

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